Discerning fact from fiction in University of Arizona turmoil

UA Provost Meredity Hay
UA Provost Meredity Hay

It is hard to believe it has been a month since a University of Arizona faculty poll revealed that at least 31 percent, and possibly nearly 50 percent, of the voting faculty wanted Provost Meredith Hay fired. Time flies when you’re buried under textbooks.

During the past four weeks, while I’ve been building lessons for rascally high school freshmen and learning new terms like “constructive assertiveness” and “summative evaluation,” UA’s upper administration has been following up on President Robert N. Shelton’s promise to meet with faculty and improve communication. My e-mail inbox, once a veritable clearinghouse of faculty and department head concern over Hay, grew silent, leading me to wonder if Hay’s apology in a faculty senate meeting had made things hunky-dory in Wildcat Town. Apparently not, according to inquiries made yesterday and today.

“She dug herself a deep hole and she’s now trying to dig her way out of it,” said Lynn Nadel, UA Regents Professor of Psychology and Chair of the Strategic Planning and Budget Advisory Committee. “The general feeling I’ve gotten from speaking with the faculty who have attended the meetings is one of guarded – well, I wouldn’t even say optimism – it’s just guarded. I think she is sincere, but I’m not surprised people are skeptical. But to her credit, she’s been brave and gotten out there. She hasn’t run away.”

Not that some don’t want her to, still. This, from a department head who admits to being more than a little skeptical:

Robert’s gotten the word–from faculty, from administration, from faculty leadership–that the provost is arbitrary, incompetent, and personally impossible. “Never been a dean, never been a department head” is how she gets regularly characterized around here, by way of explanation for why she understands leadership, budgets, curriculum, and the management of a university so poorly.

UA President Robert N. Shelton
UA President Robert N. Shelton

Indeed, Shelton held a meeting with various department heads on Sept. 15 – before the faculty poll – and was told (according to minutes obtained through a public records request for Shelton’s emails) that, of the four meetings Shelton had held prior to Sept. 15 with these department heads, “the meetings that were held with Dr. Shelton alone had a different tenor than those in which Dr. Hay was present as well. … in the perception of the Heads Representatives, there was little in the way of give and take dialog…”

Nadel said the big change since the faculty poll is the creation of a SPBAC subcommittee that is charged with making sure Hay’s my-way-or-the-highway method of faculty consultation is changed. The committee, called SPBAC 2012 in reference to the funding “cliff” anticipated in 2012 when the federal stimulus dollars go dry, is meant to increase communication both up and down the chain of command. It is a 15-member committee appointed by Nadel, with representation from staff, the student body and every major UA college, including the College of Humanities and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, both of whic have felt put upon since receiving 7 percent cuts to their budgets this year. Here’s Nadel:

Everyone still agrees (Shelton and Hay) will have to make decisions, but in the recent cuts it is like they got input too late in the process from the faculty to take advantage of the collective wisdom of the campus. This committee will ensure input early so that it isn’t us just getting the decisions they would recommend but rather we help them come up with options, help decide what are the priorities of the institution. Decision-making is not shared, no one argues with that, but the point of this committee is to institutionalize a mechanism that they have to have proactive discussions with faculty early in the process.

Also, it is to make sure this change in behavior on (Shelton’s and Hay’s) part is real. We worked hard to create some space for them to change because the alternative – trying to get rid of them – is too horrific. I think they know we’re serious. They’d have to be stupid not to understand they came very close to the edge. This was a real public thrashing. I hope they don’t get lulled into a sense of false security about what is happening here. This committee is meant to hold their feel to the fire.

Holding Shelton and Hay’s feet to the fire, however, doesn’t mean looking to the past, but focusing on future cuts, Nadel said. While there’s no doubt that the money that is being poured into translational medicine and environmental sciences is coming out of the hides of other colleges, he said, but it isn’t as bad as some people have made it out to be.

“The $12 million is misleading,” he said. “That is over a number of years, not at once. But yes, they made a $2.6 million cut in permanent funding over and above what they had to do to meet the $19 million in reduced state funding. We know that’s a flash point. They will defend it as necessary for the success of the whole university. It added to the total amount that had to be cut campus wide. In principal, they could have given smaller cuts and that differential investment couldn’t have been made.”

But, Nadel said, while a 7 percent cut equates to cutting 1 out of every 14 faculty members, that cut doesn’t equate to Shelton and Hay saying they want to get rid of a college.

“If you want to get rid of a college, you close it, you don’t just cut its budget,” he said. “Look, we lost six out of 36 faculty in psychology and we’re not getting them back. That’s one-sixth of our faculty, not one-fourteenth, and we teach more students than any unit on campus. And 1/14th is the worst-case scenario, because the cuts can come in other positions. They aren’t trivial cuts, they are forcing some hard decisions, but it isn’t like they are the only hard decisions.”

Arizona Board of Regents President Ernest Calderón
Arizona Board of Regents President Ernest Calderón

Arizona Board of Regents President Ernest Calderón is keeping a close eye on all these changes. He’s been down to the UA at least four times in the past four weeks for meetings with Shelton, Hay, faculty leaders and just about anyone who calls and says they want to meet, he said this morning.

The Provost apologized and she’s going around meeting with colleges – kind of a road show – and I’m told she’s taking responsibility for being rude and being brusque. I’m hearing some good things, but the question is, will she walk the walk? It’s one thing to say, I should not have talked to you that way, or I should have asked for your input before I made these decisions, but it’s another thing to see if there’s real change. When this comes up the next time, how will she do? That’s what I’m interested in. She’s told me in a very heartfelt way that she is sorry for this. And I said, ‘Great, do better.’

Ultimately this falls into Robert’s lap. If she goofs up again, it will be his responsibility. But this isn’t over. I’m going back down there next week. I’m still trying to sift the fact from the fiction, hear all the sides. People need to know that Earnie is going to keep coming back, and keep coming back, and keep coming back to see if things are working. I don’t care if people disagree with each other – it’s a university, of course they’re going to disagree – but they need to get to where they can work together down there and treat each other with respect.

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8 comments

  1. Meredith is clearly in over her head and has burned every important bridge.   No one wants to meet with her.  The only option for the President to show the courage to admit HIS mistake and replace her.  He may survive with that move….and only maybe if he acts soon.

    • Downtown: Tell me why you think there is so much more to the tale, and more importantly, what do you know about the tale. Do share.

  2. Is this not also the lady who released the Miles Simon transcripts many years ago? The whole episode shamed and scapegoated a very fine man, the late Mike Fisher, who was wrongly targeted, and pointing to the Universities penchant to cover up delicate faculty issues.

    Please do correct me here,  and I apologize if this was not the same woman who was later discovered to have been the one who released those transcripts to the press. I believe she taught Physics.

    • Dr. Hay has only been at UA for not 1.5 years. She has never taught physics there and, as a matter of policy, she does not deal with the press, so I don’t think you are referring to the correct person.

  3. Pardon me for injecting a note of reality, but it did appear that Meredith was hand-picked by Vickie Chandler, who controlled the Provost evaluation process – you will observe that V. is long-gone.  It also appeared that many of the outcomes now being agonized over were predetermined in that very selection process.  Please correct me if I am wrong.

    • Mike: Do you have some insider info on the process that picked the current provost? I don’t think that there’s a connection between Chandler leaving and Hay coming, although I do believe AZ’s budget problems contributed to Chandler leaving.

  4. No insider info, only what I read in the paper – almost two years ago and getting very hazy.  The administrators have been placed in a very difficult position and I think they are doing their best in working toward an equitable solution, to intractable problems.

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